Putting a Spark in Education

April 18, 2013—Alumna Joanna Belcher (C’03) wants every child to get the education they deserve. For her, that means creating a school with dedicated teachers at every grade level.

Belcher is the founder and principal of SPARK Academy, Newark’s first KIPP elementary school. KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) is a national network of charter schools. Belcher found her passion for education as a student at Georgetown. “I worked at a school in Southeast DC for four years,” she said. She was startled when she compared the pre-college experiences of DC students with her new Georgetown classmates. “Students were prepared for two different life tracks,” she continued.

After graduation, she joined Teach for America and taught in San Jose, California. “At my school in California, there were a lot of strong teachers,” she said. In her first years of teaching, she discovered that a student’s success was primarily “dependent on the expectations [a] teacher sets for you,” she explained. “What you would see at the end of the year had nothing to do with how kids entered, and everything to do with what happened inside [the classroom].”

For educators, the difficulty arises in maintaining that positive effect over years. “There’s research that shows that three strong teachers in a row will close the achievement gap for our students of color and in low-income communities,” she said. In San Jose, Belcher saw success in isolated classrooms, but when she transferred to an elementary school in the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles she saw success on a larger scale.

“Every child was accountable to high expectations, and every teacher in the school was on the same page,” she continued. “The impact it had on the kids and the community was tremendous. Our [students] were prepared to get into any competitive middle school or high school. [But] in Compton, we had our kids going into a failing middle school.”

As an educator, Belcher’s focus has been on creating better schools, rather than criticizing societal elements outside of her control. “It’s easy for us to blame the community and blame the parents, but we’re not fixing the problem,” she explained. She also feels empathy for those parents who are involved but have a choice between “this failing school or that failing school.”

“Those factors are not the cause of our children’s success. They definitely contribute, of course. But the quality of the school, which is something we do have control over, is key,” she said.

Belcher’s desire to offer students strong teachers at every grade level led her to KIPP, which started as a middle school program and now includes elementary and high schools. “KIPP’s whole vision is around college completion and character. We tell our kids, ‘Going to college is important, but being an active community agent is just as important,’” she explained.

Belcher acknowledges that all of her students may not want to go to college, but she wants students to be prepared if they choose to pursue a college degree. As children fall behind from inadequate schools or teaching, their paths can be decided. “Right now we are making that choice for kids in schools across the country, and that’s not okay,” she continued. “We have schools that are perpetuating the inequities that already exist.”

At the beginning of her career, Belcher was committed to the traditional public school model. “Coming to a charter school was a big challenge for me,” she explained. Her school, SPARK Academy, is housed in the same building as a Newark district school, which highlights the differences between the two systems. “I work very closely with two principals at two district schools. Our kids are facing the same challenges, but we have a completely different level of flexibility and autonomy to deal with those challenges,” she said.

Unlike a public school principal, Belcher has more freedom in her budgeting and staffing decisions. She can also use whatever curriculum she feels is best for her students. However, Belcher believes that charter schools must work with public schools. “Looking at our city as a whole, we’re not a part of Newark Public Schools (NPS), but it’s my responsibility to work with NPS and to learn from them.

“We need to have high-quality district and charter options. We need to make sure every kid has the ability to attend a good school.”

—Elizabeth Wilson